Johnson Partners Diversity Series – Minjee Lee

Minjee Lee was the sport sector winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards.

In 2018 Minjee Lee was the first woman to win the Greg Norman Medal as Australia’s top golfer. Hailing from Perth, she had won the state title at the age of ten and was No.1 on the world amateur rankings by the time she won the 2014 Oates Victorian Open at 17. Turning professional later that year, she rose to No. 2 in the Women’s World Golf Rankings in 2019 after the Hugel-Air Premia LA Open.

In late October 2020, Lee was awarded the sports sector winner of the 2020 40 Under 40: Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards, which addresses the under-representation of young Asian-Australians (under 40 years-old) in senior leadership positions by recognising their achievements in a variety of fields. The accolade highlights her contribution to the Australian sports arena whilst driving the country’s engagement with Asia (most notably in the sponsorship arena). Johnson Partners (JP) interviewed her to discover what highlights have shaped her career – one that shows no sign of slowing down.

JP Success came early to you. In 2010 you were the youngest winner of the WA Amateur Open while still a year 9 student in Perth. At what age did you set your mind on being a professional golfer and what role did you parents play is guiding your path?

I was around ten when I decided I wanted to be a professional golfer and my parents have played a huge part in my career. My mum was a teaching pro and good golfer, off a handicap of seven when I was growing up, so she introduced me to the game and has probably been the biggest influence on my career. She used to play a lot with me and travelled with me the whole time when I was younger. She even caddied for me. Both my parents have sacrificed a lot to help me achieve my dream of being a professional golfer and without their encouragement I definitely wouldn’t be in this position right now!

JP You became the number one ranked amateur golfer in February 2014 after winning the Oates Victorian Open, until turning professional in September that year. What were the major adjustments you had to make strategically and physically after turning professional?

I have had to keep working really hard, both on my game but also on my physical conditioning as it is a long season. I have also had to get used to travelling a whole lot and in recent years, on my own. I really enjoy what I do though, so I feel very lucky to be able to play the game I love for my career. I wouldn’t swap it for anything right now!

JP You represented Australia in the women’s golf competition at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, finishing in a tie for 7th. Representing Australia at the Tokyo Olympics this year, what will be significantly different about the competition (bar obvious Covid restrictions) for you on a personal level five years after Brazil?

I think I will be more confident going into this Olympics and although still very excited to represent my country, I think I will feel less awed by the whole experience of being an Olympian after my experience in Rio. I can’t wait!

JP Touching on this, you were born in Perth to immigrant Korean parents. How significant is it for you to be competing for Australia in the Olympics as opposed to professional tournaments? Is there more of a sense of team comradery with fellow Australians instead of feeling like a solo circuit competitor?

It’s really different. I love it and can’t wait to represent Australia in August! I am so proud to represent my country and be part of the Australian Olympic team. It is very special and I think the Australian’s definitely have the best team spirit.

JP That brings us to the question of you nationality. How do you define your Australian-ness given you have been referred to as the “Invisible Champion of Australia” by the Australian Sports writer, Martin Blake. Based upon the lack of collective national awareness of you sporting prowess, are you ‘proudly Australian’ or do you see yourself more as an international figure who was born in Australia?

I absolutely view myself as Australian, proudly representing Australia out on Tour. I am quite a low-key person so I don’t really crave publicity or want everyone to know who I am as I walk down the street so I don’t worry about how high my profile is. I just keep my head down and try to let my clubs do the talking.

“I absolutely view myself as Australian, proudly representing Australia out on Tour. I love it and can’t wait to represent Australia [at the Olympics] in August! I am so proud to represent my country and be part of the Australian Olympic team.”

JP You are the top ranked golfer in Australia and over the course of 2021, your world ranking has ranged from 12th to 9th. Yet your major contract is with the Korean bank, Hana, and until very recently no Australian company sponsored you. Fortunately, that has just changed with Raydel (a healthcare brand) becoming your first local sponsor in late 2019. How answerable is the Australian media for this oversight and what are your views on the restricted coverage of women’s golf in the country and the low public profile of female sporting professionals in general?

I am lucky to have a number of fantastic international sponsors which I think is to be expected given I play on the LPGA Tour which takes place around the world. I am really grateful for their support. I do want to inspire young Australian golfers to pursue their dreams of a career in golf if I can, and I think it would be great if there was more coverage of all women’s sports in the media in Australia – not just regarding golf.

JP Your younger brother, Min Woo Lee, has now hit the professional golfing circuit. He already boasts a European Tour win – having won the PGA Tour of the Australasia co-sanctioned Victorian Open in 2020. In 2016 he was the US Junior Amateur winner and in 2012 you won the U.S. Girls’ Junior, which makes you the first brother-sister duo to win those USGA titles. Given your close ties and therefore insights, how different has his journey to the professional circuit been for him as a man?

Maybe there is more pressure on him because as a younger sibling he is always trying to catch up with me. I don’t think it’s because he’s a man that it’s been easier; he didn’t have status when he won on the European Tour. He’s had to earn his place on tour like I did and I’m very proud of him.

JP This year, you dipped into your own pocket to help fund Golf Australia’s high performance initiatives throughout the country through its revolutionary Give Back program. It is the first formal donation since Give Back – a mandatory program for national or rookie squad players – was formalised in 2015. Compared to other countries, how does Australia perform in terms of supporting young Australian golfers and what changes do you think need to occur to better assist them?

I always felt great support – especially from Karrie Webb – when I was growing up and then when I headed out on the Tour. I think because we are all so far from home, Australians have a really special sense of comradery out on tour and I am very happy to be in a position now to be able to give back. I think hosting more international junior and professional tournaments in Australia would be a good move to help Australian juniors develop.

JP Lastly, when retirement is on the horizon, do you plan to step completely outside the golfing arena or remain involved in it through other channels, and if so, what?

I am luckily not near the point where I have to consider my retirement, but I guess when I do finally retire, I would love to stay involved in golf in some capacity. It has given me so much and I still love it!

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